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What Causes Addiction to Painkillers?

Painkilling opioid medications can have many beneficial effects when prescribed by a doctor for physical pain, but when abused, physical and psychological dependence can quickly develop. Commonly abused prescription painkillers include oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab), meperidine (Demerol), morphine (MS Contin, Kadian, Avinza) and hydromorphone (Dilaudid).

One of the most problematic opiates abused today is OxyContin. OxyContin is a brand name for the narcotic (opioid painkiller) oxycodone. It is in the same drug family as codeine, heroin and morphine. OxyContin has a high potential for abuse. Though measures have been put in place to help prevent unauthorized use or overprescribing of the drug, it is still frequently abused. Research shows that a high percentage of people who enter treatment for OxyContin addiction obtained it from a nonmedical source and commonly abuse other substances.

These prescription painkillers interact with the nervous system to block nerve signals that are perceived as pain. Many also act upon the parts of the brain associated with pleasure. When opioids are abused, the brain has a harder time naturally preventing pain and emitting pleasure signals as it has become dependent on the abundance of painkillers to do the work. This is when physical dependence develops.

Like other chemical dependencies, people are more susceptible to painkiller addiction when they also have co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders. The numbing characteristics and the “euphoric” effect provided by higher doses of some prescription painkillers can become a form of self-medication for people suffering from physical pain as well as psychological pain.


Warning Signs of Painkiller Addiction

Painkillers prescribed by medical professionals make complex surgeries possible, relieve pain for millions of people, and enable individuals with certain medical conditions to control their symptoms. However, taking prescription pain medication without a doctor’s approval and supervision can be dangerous, and even deadly.
Painkiller addiction warning signs include:

  • Needing more of the painkiller to get the desired effect
  • Continuing to use a prescribed painkiller even though the condition it was prescribed for has improved
  • If prescribed by a doctor, the medication is consumed before the next refill is authorized
  • “Doctor shopping” for prescriptions
  • Difficulty concentrating or feeling “foggy” much of the time
  • Drastic shifts in mood and energy
  • Becoming defensive when others show concern for one’s use of painkillers
  • Avoiding social activities or interactions with loved ones
  • Decline in self-care: poor personal hygiene, eating habits and sleep patterns
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased sensitivity to sounds and sights
  • Neglecting job, family, school or personal responsibilities